In summer 2008, Ace Atkins, author of three previous thrillers based on historical events, was in Memphis researching a new book. While he was at the courthouse one day, a clerk mentioned having stumbled across the file of George “Machine Gun” Kelly, who was arrested in South Memphis in 1933 after a nation-wide manhunt by the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation. Atkins was intrigued and asked for a copy of the file. By the time he was finished reading, he had set aside the novel he was working on in favor of what would become Infamous, a cinematic true story that reads like classic film noir with a dash of Coen brothers.
No noir tale is complete without a femme fatale, and in Kit Kelly—George’s scheming wife—Atkins has created one to die for (and several do before it’s all over). After spending time with an assortment of small-time hoods, Kit hooks up with George for a successful string of bank robberies, making Machine Gun Kelly the FBI’s first “most wanted,” a year before anyone had heard of John Dillinger. But the struggling banks of the Depression-era South cannot support Kit, a long-legged brunette, who was born Cleo Brooks in a farm community outside of Tupelo, in the manner to which she wishes to become accustomed. She concocts a daring plan to kidnap a Tulsa oil executive, which goes off without a hitch—until George’s bank-robbing friends want in on the action. What follows is a cross country chase full of double-crosses and close calls, as the Kellys flee police and criminals alike. The cops closing on their tail are two aging Texas Rangers (naturally), veterans of Old West shootouts and now on the payroll of the FBI. They are under direct orders from Hoover to catch the Kellys by any means necessary.
Like Atkins, who lives on a farm outside Oxford, the Kellys stay close to their Mississippi roots. There’s a familiar Southern charm in their misdeeds—think Oh Brother, Where Art Thou—even when they are living it up in northern cities like Chicago and St. Paul. In one scene that could have been cut from that film, Cab Calloway wails “Minnie the Moocher” as a tense exchange of cash takes place in an underground nightclub. (It’s literally underground: the historically accurate club is built into an old mine, with a gigantic gorilla mouth as its entrance.) The comparison is apt for more than just the book’s diction and mood, as an actual character in the movie — a mythologized version of blues legend Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads—also appears in Infamous. In Atkins’s book, he’s called “R.L. Johnson” and strums the blues in the Dallas jail, where he is forced into an escape attempt by George’s erstwhile partner, the bloodthirsty robber Harvey Bailey. “You know this ain’t gonna turn out pretty sir,” R.J. says as Bailey forces him at gunpoint toward the waiting guards.
The reader knows it won’t turn out pretty, too. Not for Bailey, Machine Gun Kelly, Kit, or any of their gang. But how it all goes ugly proves a fascinating, true-to-life thrill ride.
Ace Atkins will read from Infamous at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis on April 26 at 6 p.m.